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Menninger, K.A. (1936). Purposive Accidents as an Expression of Self-Destructive Tendencies. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 17:6-16.

(1936). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 17:6-16

Purposive Accidents as an Expression of Self-Destructive Tendencies

Karl A. Menninger

Further evidence as to the motives and devices of focal self-destruction accrues from the study of certain 'accidents' which upon analysis prove to have been unconsciously purposive. The paradox of a purposive accident is more difficult for the scientific-minded person to accept than for the layman who in everyday speech frequently refers sardonically to an act as done 'accidentally on purpose'.

Indeed, it is probably upon the basis of an intuitive recognition of this paradox that superstitious fears have arisen with respect to certain 'accidents', e.g. spilling salt, breaking mirrors, losing wedding rings, etc. These have become conventionalized and hence no longer capable of specific interpretation although they are sometimes taken seriously. The philosopher Zeno is said to have fallen down and broken his thumb at the age of ninety-eight, and to have been so impressed by the significance of this 'accident' that he committed suicide (from which we might guess the unconscious meaning of the accidental fall and injury).

We must exclude from this category any conscious deception, i.e. pretended accidents. But quite aside from this there exists the phenomenon of apparent (i.e. consciously) absent intention in acts which gratify deeper hidden purposes. I recall that I was once seated at a formal dinner by a woman for whom I had some dislike, which, however, I resolved to blanket completely so as not to spoil the conviviality of the party. I believe I succeeded quite well until an unfortunate piece of clever clumsiness on my part resulted in upsetting a glass of water over her gown into her lap. My dismay was the greater because I knew that she knew that 'accidents (to quote from a recent insurance advertisement) don't happen; they are caused'.

In many of these accidents the damage is inflicted not upon someone else but upon one's own self. The body then suffers damage as a result of circumstances which appear to be entirely fortuitous but which in certain illuminating instances can be shown to fulfil so specifically the unconscious tendencies of the victim that we are compelled to believe either that they represent the capitalization of some opportunity for self-destruction by the death instinct or else were in some obscure way brought about for this very purpose.

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